Reach for the skies: How easyJet won the battle for branding at 35,000ft

In the summer of 2014, budget airline Ryanair announced that its net profit for the first quarter of the year had risen to €197m, a staggering 152% increase year-on-year. It followed a huge shift in the company’s brand personality, something it changed because ‘that’s what our customers want us to do’, according to chief Michael O'Leary

He was right. The announcement followed several poor performances in customer satisfaction polls, achieving the top spot in the Which? 2013 list of the worst brands for customer service. Despite the recent change in its personality, the airline is still playing catch-up after one of the greatest examples of brand reinvention in recent times – that of rival carrier, easyJet.

In November 2013, even O’Leary himself admitted that easyJet had ‘wiped the floor’ with Ryanair, following an intensive 12 month brand repositioning, including key changes to customer service such as allocated seating and an improved digital experience.

The battle begins

The fight for customers in the skies of the UK and Europe has often been a bitter one, and the last decade has been no exception. The no-frills era brought about some of the fiercest financial, communication and brand battles ever known. Two of the nation's earliest front runners, Buzz, from KLM and British Airways' Go fell fast. They were bought out by Ryanair and easyJet after just four and seven years respectively,  a shock, given the heritage of their parent brands.

The demise of Go in particular came weeks after Ryanair chairman Michael O'Leary said that the winter of 2004 would result in a "bloodbath" from which only two or three low-cost airlines would survive. In this fledgling, disruptive market, BA's foundations and heritage meant nothing, and the sector quickly descended into a relentless war on cost.

A battle fought on price

Both Go and Buzz, with their nippy names and simple but considered approach to branding, were praised within the industry. Go in particular was considered a smart extension of the British Airways business, allowing it to reach a much greater audience.  However, it was the cheekier, and crucially, cheaper services of Ryanair and easyJet that caught the nation's attention.

It was a new market with new rules. Costs were so low that flying no longer became part of the holiday experience, it became a means to an end. As everyday as getting the bus to work. Ryanair and easyJet capitalised on this, fighting head on through the nation's newspapers, driving down price until flights were as little as 99p, excluding tax.

 A battle fought on reputation

As prices took a nosedive, the quality of customer service quickly followed suit and by 2011, the reputation of both businesses was lower than ever. easyJet realised the need to change first. They hired ex-Guardian Media Group head Carolyn McCall – a woman who shrewdly asked the Operations Director what problems there were with the business – before she’d even interviewed for the job. He told McCall that the business had lost the faith of its customers and its staff, after sacrificing quality over cost for too many years. He was right. They were failing to land more than 50% of flights on time at Gatwick, according to the Sunday Times.

McCall knew something had to change, and with the help of marketing director Peter Duffy, the business embarked on its first repositioning in the 17 year history of the business. The strategic brand development programme, and communications campaign that followed, was aimed at reconnecting passengers with the joy of flying, holidaying and even business travel. 

Featuring headlines such as 'This is generation easyJet' and 'Europe by easyJet', the £50m repositioning focussed on the final destination, and the subsequent emotional experience for customers.

Alongside a new direction in tonality, the brand shifted typographically too. Though its no-frills typeface Cooper Black remained in the logo, it was shrewdly dropped from body copy, ridding the business of a design element so symbolic of 'cheap', that will scarcely be used by another brand again. In its place, a refreshed sans-serif typeface, coupled with an angular, orange supergraphic brought new warmth to the business.

VCCP, the ad agency behind the campaign, reaffirmed this rationale. It suggested that easyJet’s "low prices and expanding network of destinations heralded the democratisation of air travel which has meant everyone is able to do more of the things they love – whether it be exploring new holiday experiences, new business opportunities or visiting friends and family".

VCCP's campaign introduced new tonality and typography to help revitalise the brand:

A new TV ad put some emotion back into flying, and the end destination:

Even business travellers were targeted, with intelligent, 'business sense' ads:

But how successful was the strategy? Incredibly so.

In the six months that followed, revenue-per-seat rose from £45.11 to £50.47 and passenger numbers were up as much as 3.7million. Its predicted Winter losses (not unusual for an airline) were cut from an estimated £153m to £112m and in October 2012, it announced record profits, rising 28% year-on-year. It was money well spent.

 Becoming a marketing leader

Since the re-launch, McCall and Duffy highlighted two powerful brand measures to Marketing Magazine. McCall stated “We’ll never move away from price – it’s the cornerstone of what we do. But now we communicate destination and service”. She added that consumers see “A lot of blue water between us and Ryanair, and very little between us and British Airways”. The shift in brand reputation was clear.

The success wasn't down to above-the-line press ads and TV spots alone. E-consultancy reported that even easyJet's email marketing became the third best performing of any brand in the UK – with Ryanair trailing far behind. 

As Ryanair plays catch up in terms of brand and communications improvements, the business still outperforms easyJet in terms of profit and passenger numbers – so does brand matter?

We think so. The perceived shift between the two businesses will engender greater loyalty and repeat brand interaction for easyJet. The fruits of this labour are already being felt and this will only increase. These results may indeed follow for Ryanair too, but as O'Leary plays catch up, McCall may be one step ahead in brand innovation.

The one thing we can be certain of, is that the era of “pile it high and sell it cheap” is over, and as O’Leary himself put it, the industry had to “change tactic”. Their marketing officer, Kenny Jacobs, compared their new brand approach to that of low-cost brands like Aldi, Ikea and H&M, who maintain high perception levels alongside low cost. He might be right, but we’d add easyJet to that list too.

Design adds value to the UK, but does the UK value design?

New figures show the value of design to the UK economy.

This week started off with the fantastic news that design's contribution to the UK economy was up 25% on last year, rising to a whopping £3.1bn in 2014. In fact design (classified as product, graphic and fashion design) is growing at more than double the rate of the creative sector as a whole, which is up by nearly 10 per cent from last year’s total of £71.4 billion.

The Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, stated that the creative industries are “one of our most powerful tools in driving growth, outperforming all other sectors of industry, and their contribution to the UK economy is evident to all.”

This is fantastic news for design, the businesses that have chosen to invest in it and ultimately the UK economy. Why? Because even as far back as 2007, the Design Council's report on the value of design noted that:

  • Rapidly growing businesses are nearly six times as likely as static ones to see design as integral.
  • Shares in design-led businesses have outperformed the FTSE 100 by more than 200% over the past decade.
  • For every £100 a design alert business spends on design, turnover increases by £225.
  • Businesses that add value through design see a greater impact on business performance than the rest. 

We've purposefully chosen antiquated statistics to show how long design's impact on business has been felt.

So why is it, as much as eight years later, that whenever a new 'logo' or 'brand' is unveiled for a business, the UK media's reaction is consistently less than favourable?

Guardian opinion article shows perceptions of design value need improvement.

This week, creative consultancy Aesop announced a new logo for tennis star Andy Murray. Our initial reaction was that the monogram was smart. When we read the story behind it, we thought it was even smarter. Besides a neat combination of his 'AM' initials, "The logo, designed by Dan Calderwood at branding agency Aesop, uses '77' as a reference to Murray's recent Wimbledon win on July 7, which made him the first British man in 77 years to top the tournament – it's also the name of his management agency" reported Creative Review.

Switch to an opinion in The Guardian and the commentary is far less favourable: "What a load of nonsense. It’s just three black lines on a page. Can you do better?" wrote its author, Paul Campbell. The publication then went on to open a gallery of suggestions for alternative logos.

So why does Murray even need a new logo? As Campbell suggests, "The idea that a tennis player requires his own “branding identity” is a peculiarly modern one". However, if the context of the design had been clarified, readers would have understood that the logo was due to launch at this year's Australian Open on Andy's training gear, before being applied to a range of clothing and merchandise.

So that marque will help to build a range of saleable merchandise that will then go on to boost the UK economy even further. Of course it's not purely down to the logo, but the Andy Murray brand needs a premium identity to signal its arrival in the sportswear market, and to challenge that of stars such as Roger Federer.

The article's author went on to Tweet: "Can you design a better logo for Andy Murray? Probably".

To The Guardian's credit, they did outline the context further in a separate news article (here) and later reported that the logo had received the "thumbs up from fans and marketing experts" (here), it's just a shame this balance wasn't addressed directly in the opinion piece.

The identity for Murray shows the thinking, storytelling and consideration that so often goes into logo and branding projects. We've got nothing against constructive criticism, we're simply saddened by the fact that when design's impact on society is so notably high, the wider commentary on the industry is often unjustifiably low.

Understanding brand language: The science behind Cancer Research UK's brand success

Here at Lantern, we're passionate about the importance, and impact, of language and tonality on brand standout. So much so, that we've defined our entire business by it. But to fully understand attitudinal effectiveness, it helps to look at best practice examples. One benchmark from the charity sector that continues to inspire us, is Cancer Research UK. Originally rebranded by Interbrand in 2012, the organisation consistently provides tonal impact in a noisy, challenging and competitive market.

Cancer and donations: A growing problem

Cancer Research UK underwent a brand overhaul with the primary aim of increasing donations to fund its scientific research into the disease. Despite the increasing prevalence of the condition, the previous messaging didn't emphasise the science, resulting in a static level of donations funding an ever increasing level of research.

Aside from a need to increase the clarity and understanding of the charity's aims, a brand audit also noted that the organisation wasn't seen as bold or brave enough in its positioning as the enemy of cancer, nor did it achieve enough stand out in a crowded market.

An overhaul was undertaken at a total cost of £680,000 – a sum that included the initial design development as well as a full-scale national rollout.

Clearer on the outside, clearer on the inside

The rebrand was announced in August 2012 and revealed a new logo and look and feel, alongside clearer messaging and a much stronger tonality.  The refresh promptly positioned research as cancer's greatest enemy – a core idea that went on to inform a rallying-cry of tonality across advertising, marketing and internal communications. It'a a technique that has continued to be applied since launch and one that has grown in terms of attitude over the past two and a half years.

Interbrand's initial tonal development for the brand:

Recent communications continue the provocative approach, but have a sharper attitude, particularly with regard to the flagship 'Race For Life' campaign:

Raising the profile, raising revenue

The compelling idea to unite scientists, fundraisers, sufferers and families against one common evil not only gives the brand powerful standout in the crowded third sector, but it also empowers those affected by the disease.

By having a clear core message, forged in the simple brand truth of one day beating cancer, the charity instantly made it clearer for consumers to understand where their money was being spent: on finding a cure.

Despite the messaging, the brand launch proved controversial due to the six figure sum paid for the work. But over two years on, was this money well spent? The overwhelming answer is yes.

The only way to truly understand the impact that attitude, aesthetics and clearer messaging can have on a brand is to examine evidence after launch. Since implementation in 2012, Cancer Research UK has witnessed the following, powerful results:

  • 6% increase in donations in 2013-2014, the year following launch

  • £29 million in additional revenue – far greater than the original design and marketing spend

  • Voted 11th most loved brand for people ages 18-24 in the UK – the highest performing charity

  • 30,000 Facebook fans in the week after launch

The rebrand was indeed supported by several nationwide, advertising campaigns but the golden triangle of attitude, aesthetics and clear messaging ensured when the brand started speaking, people stopped, listened and donated.

With an overall implementation cost of 0.2% of revenue, resulting in a 6% increase in donations, it's clear that the rebrand was an investment worth making.